Church-State Separation Group Objects to Calif. Board of Education’s Proposed Changes to Prayer Policy

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COSTA MESA, Calif. — The group Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) has sent a letter to the Orange County Board of Education to express objection to proposed changes to its prayer policy — and to the presentation of prayers at public meetings altogether.

A proposed amendment to the current invocation policy would allow those who do not wish to hear the prayer to leave the room and would seek to also keep students at bay so they would not hear the presentation either.

“The Board is mindful that some individuals either may not want to participate, or feel compelled to be present during invocations. To that end, the Board will provide the public with an opportunity to excuse themselves prior to an invocation. To every extent possible students will not be present in the Board meeting during invocations,” the proposed new text reads.

It also states that prayers cannot “denigrate nonbelievers, agnostics and/or religious minorities or subgroups,” nor can they “proselytize, advance, promote, criticize or disparage any religion or belief” or “threaten damnation, preach conversion or seek to indoctrinate.”

Read the proposal in full here. 

The latter language seems to reflect the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which Justice Anthony Kennedy opined, “If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort.”

And the proposed changes in general may come in light of the 2018 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that left in place an injunction preventing the Chino Valley Unified School District “from conducting, permitting or otherwise endorsing school sponsored prayer in board meetings.”

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However, AU believes that the Orange County proposal does not ensure that students will not be exposed to religious content. It also feels that “no students or community members should be forced to leave a public meeting” as it takes away from their ability to “fully participate in democratic processes of their local government.”

“[T]o say that students will be excluded to ‘every extent possible’ falls short of a guarantee that no student will be forced to listen to government-sponsored prayer in violation of the Establishment Clause,” the letter, written on Aug. 28, states. “And if some students are permitted to opt in while others wait outside during the prayers, abstaining children will face the untenable choice of either
grudging participation or open protest.”

The group further asked that prayers be discontinued at school board meetings altogether.

“In addition to violating the federal Establishment Clause, the Board’s insistence on injecting prayer into its meetings runs afoul of three provisions of the California Constitution. Article I, section 4 contains both the state’s establishment clause and its no-preference clause. … The latter forbids governmental conduct that has the effect of a religious preference ‘even when there is no discrimination,'” it states.

“And article XVI, section 5, which provides that California governmental bodies must not give any aid to sectarian purposes, has been construed by the California Supreme Court to ban ‘any official involvement, whatever its form, which has the direct, immediate, and substantial effect of promoting religious purposes.'”

The letter, signed by Associate Legal Director Alex Luchenitser, concludes with the assertion, “The Board’s proposed amendments to its invocation policy do not cure the policy’s blatant constitutional defects. We urge the Board instead to cease including prayers at its public meetings, out of respect for the rights of all of its constituents to be free from governmental pressure in matters of religious belief, as well as in recognition of the considerable cost to taxpayers of any litigation in federal or state court that could result from continuing the prayers.”

Read the letter in full here.

According to the office of the chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, the first prayer of the Continental Congress was presented on Sept. 7, 1774 by Jacob Duche of Christ Church of Philadelphia, and was delivered in the name of Jesus.

“O Lord our Heavenly Father, high and mighty King of kings, and Lord of lords, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers on earth and reignest with power supreme and uncontrolled over all the kingdoms, empires and governments,” he prayed, “look down in mercy, we beseech Thee, on these our American States, who have fled to Thee from the rod of the oppressor and thrown themselves on Thy gracious protection, desiring to be henceforth dependent only on Thee.”

Jesus said in Luke 9:26, “For whosoever shall be ashamed of Me and of My words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed when He shall come in His own glory, and in His Father’s, and of the holy angels.”

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